Last week of campaigning, but no end to abortion debate

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The hugely divisive referendum campaign on the Eighth Amendment draws to a close ahead of voting day next Friday with opinion polls showing support for the removal of Ireland’s constitutional protection for the unborn declining, but still likely to pass.

According to an Ipsos/MRBI survey for the Irish Times, the lead for the ‘Yes’ side has fallen sharply over the past month. The poll also shows a clear majority are opposed to proposed new legislation to make abortion available on request in the first three months of pregnancy.

When asked how they will vote in next Friday’s referendum, 44 per cent of respondents said they would vote in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment, which protects the life of the unborn child equally with that of the mother, while those against are at 37 per cent. Another 24 per cent are undecided or refused to say.

On the issue of making abortion freely available in the first twelve weeks of pregnancy, 54 per cent of those with an opinion said that went “too far”, versus 46 per cent in favour.

Dublin remains the most pro-repeal part of the 26 Counties, with the Yes side leading in the capital by 68 per cent to 32 per cent, once undecideds and unlikely voters are excluded. The two sides are almost tied in Connacht (with the three Ulster counties lumped in by pollsters), with 51 per cent of declared likely voters saying they will vote Yes and 49 per cent No.

The survey shows that younger voters are much more likely to support the Yes side, although that has declined very steeply in recent weeks.

Monday’s first televised debate was predictably intense and was seen to have provided a boost to the No campaign. It featured Maria Steen of the Iona Institute, spokesperson for a Catholic advocacy group, debating Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald, with two obstetricians on either side of the debate also involved.

RTE plans another debate next Tuesday while TV3 has said it will host a referendum debate next Wednesday, two days before polling.

After coming under pressure from the government in Dublin, Google and Facebook have moved to block online political advertising campaigns in the final days of the campaign, where both companies maintain their European offices. It had been alleged that foreign organisations were involving themselves in the referendum, with US-based pro-life organisations particularly accused of placing ads to influence voters.

In response, anti-abortion activists with the ‘Sligo For Life’ group grabbed headlines with a terse 100m tall ‘No’ message on the side of Ben Bulben, a mountain normally associated with the poetry of WB Yeats. It was removed by pro-abortion activists the following day.

Sinn Fein has campaigned strongly in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment, although party delegates are set to endorse an explicit abortion policy at a special Ard Fheis next month. They will be asked to support abortion on request in the first three months.

With party leader Mary Lou McDonald one of Ireland’s most prominent champions for access to abortion and vowing to take disciplinary measures against those who dissent, the party looks to be once again facing the threat of resignations and expulsions. Many of Sinn Fein’s strongest opponents of abortion are based in the North and in rural areas, while its most fervent advocates are based in Dublin.

The stakes are high: given the party’s strength in the Dail, Sinn Fein TDs could make the difference in swinging the vote in favour of legislating for abortion.

Ms McDonald said recently that party members that breach the party line would face consequences.

“This is something all members are aware of”, she said, referring to Sinn Fein TDs Carol Nolan and Peadar Toibin, who have campaigned against abortion

“Sinn Fein policy is crystal clear. There isn’t an a la carte position. We do have people in the party that have a different view, and they articulate that different view. What will not happen on my watch is any ambiguity in terms of the absolute requirement to vote in the Dail or Seanad chamber in accordance with Sinn Fein policy.”

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